RICHMOND, Va. (CN) - A libertarian think tank says George Mason University failed to conduct an adequate FOIA search for employee emails that allegedly ask the Obama administration to prosecute climate change skeptics.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit describing itself as public policy group that supports free market enterprising, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the university on Sept. 24, 2015, requesting any emails that contained such terms as "RICO," "racketeer," "Racketeering," "DOJ," "prosecute" or "prosecution."
In a complaint filed in the Richmond City circuit court on Nov. 13, the group says it later worked with a university official to narrow the request to the emails of two faculty members, Jagadish Shukla and Edward Maibach.
Ultimately the university said it had no documents in its electronic mail system that were responsive to the non-profit's request.
In a statement on its website, the Competitive Enterprise Institute claim Maibach was involved in an effort called RICO-20, headed by Shukla, which is seeking the prosecution of opponents of his view of climate policy.
"Emails the Competitive Enterprise Institute obtained under the Washington State and Florida open records acts show Professor Maibach, a taxpayer-funded instructor of " how to mobilize populations to adopt behaviors and support public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions ," used his University title, position and email account in the RICO-20 effort," the statement says. "Numerous records provided by other state universities notwithstanding, GMU informed CEI that Prof. Maibach insisted he had no records responsive to the same request to that school."
The group says it has indisputable proof that Maibach and Shukla wrote a Sept. 1, 2015, letter in which they and 18 fellow climate change researchers urged President Obama to investigate claims that fossil fuels corporations and lobbyists "knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, in order to forestall America's response to climate change."
But CEI suggests RICO-20 supporters may be putting their own best interests before their environmental concerns.
The Institute for Global Environment and Society, a research foundation headed by Shukla, has received $63 million in federal grants since 2001, the group claims.
"The FOIA dispute ... aims to inform the public about the role of Maibach in organizing the campaign leg by GMU Professor Jagadish Shukla calling for prosecution of their political opponents," the nonprofit says..
In her Oct. 1, 2015, FOIA response letter, GMU information officer Elizabeth Woodley detailed the publicly-funded university's procedures for reviewing of FOIA requests.
"At George Mason University, our procedure when receiving a request for employee emails is to request that each employee (or their designee) produce the emails and flag them for possible exemptions to the FOIA statute," Woodley wrote.
"I then review the emails and determine whether an exemption, in fact, applies," she continued.
According to the institute and its founder, Christopher Horner, allowing the subject of a FOIA request to exercise primary discretion over which emails he or she chooses to release is a conflict of interest.
Horner and the Institute seek an order that the university "conduct an adequate and fair search for responsive records," and an injunction preventing it from charging any fees for the records.
The plaintiffs are represented by Matthew Hardin of Richmond.
Neither Maibach nor the university has responded to emails from Courthouse News seeking comment.
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